Great Streets

Our physical environments can contribute mightily to the joy of sustainable living. Here are some excerpts from Allan Jacobs’ “Great Streets” – paraphrased, as necessary – that you may find helpful in enhancing your immediate or urban environment.

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 Guidelines for Great Streets

They are where you meet people – which is the reason for communities. It’s to be part of something that’s larger than oneself.  The interplay of human activity with the physical space has an enormous amount to do with the greatness of the street.

“The greatest streets are in our mind – the street where I could

encounter you in discussion with Socrates, waiting for Pallas

Athena to show me the cafe in which I could find Sartre discus-

sing with Corbusier, Melville having a beer with Faulkner, etc.”

The best streets will be those where it is possible to see other people and to meet them; all kinds of people, not just of one class or color or age.  A great street is physically comfortable and safe.  A great street might be cooler, more shady than another street on a hot summer day, and therefore more pleasant to be on.  The best streets encourage participation.  The best streets are those that can be remembered;  they leave strong, long-lasting positive impressions.

There is magic to great streets.

We are attracted to the best of them not because we have to go there, but because we want to go there. The best are as joyful as they are utilitarian.  They are entertaining and they are open to all.  They permit anonymity at the same time as individual recognition.  They are symbols of a community, and represent a public memory.  They are places for escape and for romance, places to act and to dream.  On a great street we are allowed to dream;  to remember things that may never have happened and to look forward to things that, maybe, never will.

The search here is for those physical elements most likely to make urban streets places where the magic can happen. (Excerpts from examples follow … )


  • (In Roslyn Place) there are no garages, and cars have to park on the street, on both sides, leaving only one narrow traffic lane in the center. One doesn’t drive fast on a street like that.


  • When it is easy to see people, when you almost can’t avoid it, then it can be easy to know them. (It’s better when) the distances are short.


  • These two streets represent the best of a type:       the old, long-continuing medieval street that usually winds at least a little, is relatively narrow, and has about it a certain sense of mystery.


  • Building facades are richly detailed. Light passes over these details and surfaces, so there is a constant change of brightness and of shadows.


  • Along the line of benches, chess players vie.       It’s also a good place to play a guitar or flute.


  • There are a series of wonderfully playful spires to focus upon.


Boulevard streets evoke images of size and formality, with an emphasis on grandeur. They often mark boundaries, and are always as special places of promenade.


  • First, there is a 16-foot wide median strip, planted with large trees planted about 24 feet apart.


  • Then there is an 18-foot access road for local slow traffic and for parking.


  • Ultimately, it is the distant hills and mountains that terminate the view outward from the (boulevard.)


(From a Gaudi Barcelona street … ) the paving of the walks is exquisite, one of the few walk surfaces anywhere that truly makes a difference to a street design. It consists of six-sided Gaudi-designed tiles, each of an intricate three-dimensional design of a helix and plant-leaf forms that together create a larger design.  It is a delight – even a privilege – to walk upon it.  (Also showed beautiful street lamps.)

Two lines of trees, one on either side, draw your attention. One single line usually won’t do.  Trees are likely to be more closely spaced than on a main road;  you will move more slowly.

Great streets have definition. They have boundaries, usually walls of some sort or another, that communicate clearly where the edges of the street are, that set the street apart, that keep the eyes on and in the street, that make it a place.

If walking along a street on its left side, you turn your head about 30 degrees to the right – a rather normal, unforced thing to do – and if the building height across the street where your vision intersects with it is one fourth of the horizontal distance to that point, then it is likely you will sense that the street is defined. At height-to-distance ratios of 1-to-3.3 there always seems to be definition.  At 1-to-2, the definition is strong.  As the ratios get to 1-to-5 and beyond, there is not a sense of the street being defined.

Many fine streets are lined with trees. These may be as important as the buildings in creating strong definition.

Great streets require physical characteristics that help the eyes do what they want to do: move.  Every great street has this quality.  Visual complexity is what is required, but it must not be so complex as to become chaotic or disorienting.  Another thing that makes trees so special is their movement.  Complex building facades over which light can pass or change make for better streets.

To be effective, street trees need to be reasonably close together. In practice, the most effective tree spacing is from 15 to 25 feet.

Details contribute mightily to the best streets: gates, fountains, benches, kiosks, paving, lights, signs, and canopies can all be important.

Somewhere along the path of a fine street – particularly if it is long – there is likely to be a “break” – a small plaza or park or widening or open space. They provide stopping places, pauses, reference points along the path.

More often than not, the best streets have noticeable changes in elevation, albeit none very steep. Often there will be a middle view, if not a distant one.

Six physical qualities respond to social values and objectives of urban life:

  1. Livability;
  2. Public streets;
  3. A minimum density;
  4. An integration of uses;
  5. Many rather than fewer buildings; and
  6. Buildings that define space, rather than be set in space.

Great streets serve as locations of public expression. They should be physically comfortable and safe.  But more is required.  Magic.  The best streets leave a strong, lasting, positive impression;  they catch the eyes and the imagination.

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Most of us live in communities that are defined by legal boundaries, but not by the relationships between their residents. Yet, it’s those relationships that define a real sense of community.  In working with a firm of planners, architects and landscape architects in Milwaukee – a firm focused on how to make a dead community lively – one key element was pedestrian crossroads … walking paths that were enticing, so they’d have foot traffic, and intersections in which people might bump into one another.

Our cul-de-sac subdivisions, created after WWII, were promoted by oil companies to cause people to drive to shopping malls … thereby reducing foot traffic, but selling more gasoline. Many of our Garden Atrium residents say they’ve lived places for ten years in which they never got to know their neighbors.  We simply drive past them.

In our existing communities, we likely can’t simply move or redesign buildings along a street. But perhaps some of these Great Street ideas might help you make adjustments that will promote more walking, and more relationships to build a greater sense of community … and to add another spark of beauty to your environment.

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